There’s kind of no other way to say it: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is one of those women you feel good about fan-girling over. Whip smart and well-spoken, she has the rare combination of It-factor and substance. At 36, she’s received PEN, O. Henry, and Orange prizes, as well as a MacArthur ‘genius’ grant; when she accepts each award her flawless, often crimson smile is infectious, even in photos.
She also unapologetically loves clothes—though she didn’t always. In ELLE’s March issue, she examines the frustrating idea that “women who [want] to be taken seriously [are] supposed to substantiate their seriousness with a studied indifference to appearance.”
As ELLE’s Ben Dickinson wrote in his review of her 2009 story collection, The Thing Around Your Neck, Adichie has “the ability to conjure whole lives, times, places, worlds in a few deft splashes of prose.” In last year’s Americanah—chosen as one of the New York Times’ 10 Best Books of 2013—Adichie gives us Ifemelu, a Nigerian woman whose intellect wins her a scholarship to attend university in America, forcing her to leave behind her family, her culture, and her Big Love.
The story is poignant without a touch of sentimentality, its characters achingly real in their emotions and flaws. And it’s funny, too. Audible-giggles-on-the-subway funny. Spanning oceans and decades, by the end of the novel it’s hard to believe that you don’t know these people, can’t pick up the phone and give them a call. So we did one better, and phoned the woman who created them.
When you’re working on a novel, what does a typical day look like for you?
When the writing is going well, I’m obsessive. I don’t shower, I don’t take phone calls, I hardly respond to text messages, I don’t do email. I take breaks only to read, and usually I read poetry. When it’s not going well, I just lie in bed and eat chocolate.
Do you base your characters on people you know?
They’re usually composites. I wish I could pretend that I make up all of these characters, but no. I steal from people. But people will say to me, “Oh, that’s me!” and I’m thinking, no, that’s not you! (laughs)
You write from so many different perspectives, from the fifteen-year-old girl, Kamili in ‘Purple Hibiscus’, to Obinze, an adult man. Is that difficult?
When I wrote Half of the Yellow Sun, I wrote part of it from the view of an Englishman, and I felt very constrained by thinking: He’s an Englishman, he’s white, he’s nothing like me. And I think at some point I realized, you know what? He was me. He was just a person who was seeking a sense of belonging.
I’m interested in how being a woman walking down the street differs from being a man, how being black is different from being white. I guess I just watch carefully, and I listen, and I ask inappropriate questions.
Betrayal seems to be a recurring theme in your work.
I think it’s unconscious. I think I find it interesting that it’s probably the one way that we can measure the strength of the human—I don’t know—heart? Connection? Ability?
What’s the most important thing to you in your own relationships?
Honesty. And I just really think there’s a fundamental friendship that needs to exist, whether it’s a lover, whether it’s a sister…there’s just this connection both people need to be effortlessly themselves.
How does it feel for you to really be yourself?
I don’t know, I think I’m still trying to figure it out.
Do you dress for other people?
I’ve just spent a few weeks in my ancestral hometown, [Abba, in Anambra State] which is quite conservative, and I don’t dress there as I would dress in Lagos or in London or in New York. I find myself looking for more conservative things to wear—but I quite enjoy it. I want to look in the mirror and like what I see, and increasingly it doesn’t matter so much to me what other people think of what I’m wearing.
Beyoncé sampled part of your TED Talk, “Everyone Should Be A Feminist,” in her recent song “***Flawless”. In the talk, you said that the first time someone called you a feminist, you didn’t know what it meant. So what does it mean to you now?
It means that I am present in the world, and that I realize that there is a problem with the way we’ve constructed gender. The expectations on women that most of the world subscribes to—I don’t think we are born with them. I think we create them. I want a world where men and women have equal opportunities. I want a world in which the idea of a man being with man, and a woman being with a woman, doesn’t cause a form of obstruction to anything that they want to achieve in their life.
Why write fiction?
I think it’s important to humanize history; fiction can help us remember. A lot of books I’ve read in the past have been so much more important than textbooks—there is an emotional connection with one particular person. I’m very much of a research-is-important type of fiction writer, even for contemporary fiction. I wrote about blogs in America and I’ve never blogged. But I read many, many blogs—usually about feminist things, or about race, or about hair.
I had to go look up some of the hair blogs when I finished Americanah.
This is actually the reason I’m not getting much writing done, because I spend too much time on hair blogs! It’s ridiculous. And then there’s the YouTube channels and I’m just watching all these women who are like, ‘I’ve just discovered a new Shea butter!’ (laughs) It’s hilarious.
What about cooking? It feels like such a big part of ‘Americanah’—do you like to cook or was that researched, too?
When I’m in a good mood I like to cook. But I don’t like saying it in public because I find myself being resentful of the idea; “Now you will make a good wife. You can cook, right?” So when people ask me I go, “No, I don’t like cooking!”
I could eat lentils for breakfast, lunch and dinner. I like fresh salads. My brothers think I’m a bit of an Americanized health nut. This is not true—I just think people should eat well.
You split your time between Nigeria and the US—is one more of a home than the other?
Nigeria is where my best shoes are, and to me that’s a sign of where you really live. My favorite shoes are here.